Can Istanbul stand up to the next big quake?

Tessa Fox

Leaning out of the ground-floor window of her home on a quiet street in suburban Istanbul, Aylin Yilmaz knows the house she has shared with her husband and two children for 20 years could easily be destroyed by an earthquake.
Scientists have long predicted that Bagcilar district, where Yilmaz lives, would suffer some of the highest rates of casualties and building damage if a major earthquake hits Turkey’s largest city. But, her family cannot afford to make the structural changes that would keep their house standing through a massive seismic event and the government has offered no help, said Yilmaz, whose name has been changed to protect her identity.
“What can I do about it if there is an earthquake? I can’t do anything. I’m just sitting here. So if I die or not, it’s up to God,” she said.
Following a magnitude-6.9 earthquake that destroyed or heavily damaged more than 340 buildings and killed 115 people in the city of Izmir in October, scientists are sounding the alarm over how much damage Istanbul could sustain in the next big earthquake.
Pointing to the dangers of unregulated construction and old building stock, they warn that the government urgently needs to act on the city’s earthquake preparedness plans to reduce the risk of mass casualties. “We have the rules, recommendations and road map,” said Haluk Eyidogan, an expert in seismology engineering and member of the Chamber of Geophysical Engineers of Turkey, a nonprofit organisation.
“We have to (start) immediately… to make a disaster-resilient society and system,” he said. Earthquake researchers predict there is a 95-per cent chance that an earthquake of magnitude 7.0 or stronger will strike the city within the next 70 years.
An earthquake of that strength would heavily damage or destroy an estimated 194,000 buildings, according to the latest version of Istanbul’s Earthquake Master Plan, published in 2018. That would leave more than 10 per cent of Istanbul’s 15 million residents homeless, said Eyidogan.
Much of the risk comes from the rapid, largely unregulated development carried out as the city struggled to accommodate all of the people migrating from the Anatolia region to find work in the financial capital over the past 15 years, he explained.
The head of the municipality’s Earthquake Risk Management Department, Tayfun Kahraman, said in e-mailed comments that the city now places more emphasis on stopping uncontrolled construction.
“As we do not believe that building regulations were applied correctly in Istanbul in the past, we… have increased risk avoidance efforts by 2020, both in terms of legal tools and implementation,” he said.
In the rush to house the city’s growing population, many construction projects — such as adding floors onto existing buildings — are unplanned and skirt building standards, said Dogan Kalafat of the Kandilli Observatory and Earthquake Research Institute. Hoping to tackle the wave of illegal construction, the government launched a building amnesty in February 2019, which received applications from 7.4 million illegal structures.
— Thomson Reuters Foundation